Directed by George Sidney

Starring Kim Novak, Jeff Chandler, Agnes Moorehead, Charles Drake

* Published specifically for The Kim Novak Blogathon: A 90th Birthday Celebration hosted by Ari at The Classic Movie Muse *


Biographical films, also known as Biopics, have always been a popular genre of motion pictures. They started being made at the turn of the 20th century; a time when full-length feature films were being introduced to the public. A 1906 Australian silent film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, is officially recognised as the first complete biopic on record with a running time of 60 minutes. Three years later in 1909, a 12-minute silent short entitled The Origins of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was released. Biopics were produced on a consistent basis practically every singular year between 1909 and the late 1920’s, at the end of the silent film era. When talkies became mainstream, biopics were made at an even steadier rate and by the mid-1930’s, over half a dozen films were being pumped out per year. The public was thirsty for biographical tales and movie studios were more than happy to oblige them.

One of the main driving factors behind the success of the biopic is dramatisation. Storytelling becomes a general reflection of real events and actual people but with dramatic twists and exaggerations. The goal is for audiences to be captivated and awed by what they see. This sensation is undoubtedly increased when characters face adversity, regardless if they are able to eventually overcome it. Heck, sometimes adding unnecessary tragedy is the best approach. The Origins of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was one of the earliest biopics to dramatise a story by, amongst other things, omitting certain facts/details. As one source bluntly put it, “the filmmakers clearly didn’t concern themselves with accuracy”1. This opened up a door that has since been permanently and immovably agape.

As far as biopics are concerned, Jeanne Eagels is one of the best that I have had the pleasure of viewing. It also happens to be one of the most far-from-reality bio films that I have ever seen. While this important detail does not necessarily dismiss the film’s merit, it would obviously have been better to be at least forewarned of any discrepancies. The end result is something more akin to a fictional tale inspired by real events.

“Maybe I come from nowhere but I’m going somewhere.”

Jeanne Eagels was an American actress who started out as a Ziegfeld Girl and then made a name for herself on Broadway. Born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1890, Eagels began performing with a travelling theatre company between the ages of 12 and 15. (Sources differ on ages/dates because there is very little known about Eagels’ early life.) In 1911, she moved to New York City where she began working in the Follies. A few years later, she started appearing in supporting roles in both Broadway shows and moving pictures. It was not until 1922 that Jeanne got her first starring role in the superbly received Broadway hit Rain. This and other subsequent successes brought her to Hollywood where she made three pictures – one for MGM and two for Paramount. Her future in sound pictures seemed to be welcoming and bright but, alas, her untimely death in 1929 put all that to an end. She received a posthumous nomination in 1930 for her brilliant performance in The Letter (1929), which Warner Bros. re-made in 1940 starring Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall.

Here is a clip from 1929’s The Letter:

Seeing Jeanne in the flesh and witnessing her extraordinary performance made quite an impression on me. I am sure that it did the same to Kim Novak as she prepared to incarnate her in Jeanne Eagles.

The film starts out in Kansas City, Missouri, Jeanne Eagles’ hometown. Jeanne (Kim Novak) has used the last of her money on bus fare to take her to a beauty contest being held at a travelling carnival. A seedy salesman has promised to bribe the judges in order to hand her the win and the prize money. Unfortunately, things do not work out as planned and she loses the contest, after which the salesman quickly hits the road. Stranded and penniless, she begs for carnival organiser Sal Satori (Jeff Chandler) to take her along with them at their next location. Although he is initially opposed to the idea, Sal eventually gives in and the two eventually fall in love. Her work as a scantily clad hoochie coochie dancer pays well but Jeanne hates it and expresses her desire to branch into acting. Opportunity knocks when Sal quits the carnival to go into the amusement park business with his brother. They lovingly head off for a new life in Coney Island, New York.

Being in close proximity to Manhattan inspires Jeanne to try her hand at being an actress. She has already found a revered acting coach and has been sending her money for lessons. Sal outwardly encourages Jeanne to push ahead with her dream but he secretly hopes that she will quickly get it all out of her system. Jeanne is faced with further misfortune when she finally meets her acting coach Madame Nellie Nielson (Agnes Moorehead) in-person. Nellie returns her money and rebuffingly states that she refuses to work with beginners and “carnival people”. An incensed Jeanne bravely confronts Nellie who finally relents to her emotional pleas. The two women work together and it seems in no time that Jeanne is making waves on Broadway. She wins a two-week replacement gig in the show Happy Lady, receiving terrific praise for her performance. Afterwards, producers offer her a play of her own to open in Washington, D.C. All the while Sal is hoping that she will eventually want to settle down by getting married and having a couple of kids. From being a chorus girl to earning lead actress status, what is a girl to do?

The remainder of the picture focuses on Jeanne’s dazzling rise and eventual fall from stardom. She meets a sketchy character named Johnny Donahue (Charles Drake), a former Princeton All-American who is married with two kids, and the two become romantically involved. Her moral judgement becomes increasingly ruthless leading her to steal a role from a washed-up actress hoping to make her comeback. That starring role is enormously successful and the critically acclaimed play in question, Rain, ends up running over the course of two years. As Jeanne climbs in fame, so do her addictions and erratic behaviour. The end is not pretty.


In the beginning, Jeanne was portrayed as a fresh-faced, energetic young woman. There were no details alluding to her past/background and there was never any mention of family. It is probable that she had some sort of trauma in her life which manifested itself later on in the form of dependence. This is never explained in the film and neither is her downfall. Instead, we see her quickly become a raging alcoholic and heroin addict, seemingly in response to her newfound fame. It is my supposition that the filmmakers took this vantage point to garner more sympathy for the character of Jeanne and to bypass any particular mention of these two vices due to Hays Code regulations.

There are too many differences between the real Jeanne Eagels and the one portrayed in the film to count. Also, the timeline is a bit wonky. Some events seem to happen on a day-by-day basis when in fact they occurred several years apart. The most bizarre oddity that I found pertains to Jeanne’s first Hollywood picture Man, Woman and Sin (1927). The film suggests that she is shooting a picture for Paramount (the legendary gates are shown on-screen) when it was actually for MGM. In a most bizarre twist, the director is shown to be Frank Borzage, played none other than Frank Borzage himself! The true directing credit belongs to Monta Bell who would ironically be behind the camera for Eagel’s next film, The Letter, for Paramount.

It remains unknown to me whether or not Kim Novak and the other film’s players knew about the length at which Columbia took liberties with this story. Whatever the case, every single one of them put all their hearts and souls into their roles.

Agnes Moorehead is particularly exemplary. Her Nellie is as much of a moral support to the audience as she is to Jeanne. She is the only person to remain by her protégé through thick and thin. Nellie had seen her share of actresses throw their careers away for the bottle and other vices but I believed she thought Jeanne could overcome her demons. Ms. Moorehead is mainly present throughout the second half of the film but she does get a generous amount of quality scenes.

Leading man Jeff Chandler and Kim Novak had a natural, very pleasant chemistry together. Kim herself found Jeff to be “a wonderful, great man” and loved working with him. This is the first role in which I have seen him where he shows his tender side. His Sal comes from modest origins but he is hardworking, dedicated, and ambitious. Sal’s ambition is the old-fashioned kind: get a good job, make decent money, and start a family. He fails to understand Jeanne’s desire for a glitzy, glam lifestyle and her willingness to betray certain people in order to climb her way to the top. Jeanne and Sal’s parting is – as they say – sweet sorrow, and it is certain that her destiny would have been much different had they stayed together. What a shame that the Sal Satori was a personage solely invented for the film. He was a very interesting guy.

Our lady of the hour, the enchanting Kim Novak, gives a remarkable performance as the title character. Her portrayal of Jeanne Eagels is uncanny. I viewed the above clip from The Letter after I had watched Jeanne Eagels and I was amazed at how perfectly Kim captured the essence of the real Jeanne. Jeanne’s husky yet sultry voice seemed to wrap itself around you, very much like Kim’s rendition in the film. This characteristic becomes more pronounced in the latter half of the film when you some of Jeanne’s personal struggles unfolding. Kim likely studied The Letter a great deal in preparation for this film, especially since it was the only surviving talkie that she made. I applaud Kim’s portrayal of Jeanne which I found to be very just and honest. There was never a moment of flamboyancy. It was a respectable homage to a great talent that left this world too soon.

Art imitates art. (L) Jeanne Eagels and Fredric March in the now-lost 1929 film Jealousy. (R) 30 years later. Fredric March and Kim Novak in 1959’s Middle of the Night.

In preparation for this write-up, I watched several interviews with Kim. One of my favourites is the one she did with Robert Osborne at the 3rd annual TCM Film Festival in 2012. She was very candid and quite emotional when reminiscing about her life and past projects. It had taken her twenty years away from Hollywood to be able to come to terms with certain things. I was especially touched by the details she shared about growing up in a complicated family; one touched by mental illness. The relationship with her father, in particular, is one that still affects her to this day. Kim had to deal with raw emotions on her own and find a way to cope. One of them was through acting and the other, later in life, through painting. She took the opportunity to live vicariously through her characters and was heavily invested in her roles. Something Kim said really resonated with me:

“I lived through the characters – and if they were fine, I was fine.”

Discovering more of Kim’s movies and learning further about her as a person has made a positive impact on me. I first fell in love with her, like so many, for her dual portrayal of Madeleine and Judy in Vertigo. For many years I unconsciously did not see any of her other films because Vertigo was sheer perfection. “Surely it could not get better than this”, I asked myself. How wrong I turned out to be. Kim is a versatile actress who had a stunning career. She worked with some of the greatest-ever, goosebump-inducing names in the business. All things considered; she is an international treasure. I hope that Ms. Novak had a delightful 90th birthday, celebrating it just as she wanted. May she enjoy good health and a continued blissful existence in Big Sur. When the day comes for her to go to the other side, we will be filled with both great grief and subtle joy, for she will be amongst good company. I truly hope that Jimmy will be the one to greet her. ❤︎